WHERE to start with this awesome wedge of rock in the Atlantic? At the beginning? But where is the beginning? Inis Mór is a continuation of the Burren, whose limestone beds were laid down in the Carboniferous era 350 million years ago.
It is an island which has had human habitation for more than 4,000 years.
That such a small area can have had such an enormous impact on a people can barely be overstated: It is a lodestone, a refuge, an idea. It has created writers in the novelist Liam O’Flaherty and poet Máirtín Ó Direáin. It has nurtured others, including JM Synge, whose The Aran Islands, illustrated by Jack B Yeats, awoke polite society in Dublin to a monumentally different world to theirs; and Yorkshire mathematician and cartographer Tim Robinson, who depicted the landscape in his classic Stones of Aran. Limerick artist Sean Keating’s paintings of the Aran islands from the middle of the last century are famous for installing concepts of the West in the Irish imagination.
Robert J Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran from 1934 engaged in some myth-making — shark fishing hadn’t been carried out as depicted for over 50 years — but sharply illustrated life on the islands.
Inis Mór (Inishmore) is the largest of the Aran Islands and considerably larger than its neighbours to the southeast, Inis Meáin (Inishmaan) and Inis Oírr (Inisheer) whose combined size would fit into half of the main island.
However, that is not all the Aran islands: Straw Island lies just to the east of Inis Mór, while to the west are Brannock Island and Rock Island, making a total of six Aran islands. Aran is the anglicisation of árainn, meaning kidney-shaped. The main island is sometimes mistakenly called Aran Mor, confusing it with Arranmore, Co Donegal.
It is Ireland’s biggest island when not counting islands connected by causeway, sandbar, or bridge, such as Valentia Island, Co Kerry. Its 7,650 acres support a population of about 850 people, which means by itself it comprises a sizeable percentage of our islands’ inhabitants.
Of course Inis Mór is a real island and not a concept, and people live, work, and rear families there. It has a vigorous tourist industry, mainly in the summer, with manifold outdoor activities to entertain visitors.
A glance at the satellite view on Google maps reveals the astonishing topography of the place. A lot of it is swathed in sheets of limestone, but much too is divided and subdivided into rectangular fields whose very existence emerged from decades of painstaking removal of stones and careful fertilisation of the soil with seaweed.
Many of these fields have their own names and stories, and Robinson’s meticulous recording of the rich lore contained within is a magnificent service to our heritage. Éamon Lankford has done the same for Cape Clear, Co Cork, as has Anthony Beese for the Skeams, Long Island, and Castle Island across from Cape Clear. Inis Mór’s difference was alluded to in a 1980’s documentary by film-maker Bob Quinn who suggested that the blood type of Aran islanders was different to the majority of mainlanders due to sea trade over possibly thousands of years with north African and Middle East. He provided much other evidence to give his theories wings but was duly shot down by academia
Perhaps the most astonishing feature of Inis Mór is the 3,000-year-old fort possibly built by the Fir Bolg: Dún Aenghus. To stand at the cliff edge is to stand at the absence of something, for half this fort is gone. A semicircular structure is all that remains, and the monument leaves us wondering at the vanished people who created it and the vanishing ground beneath our feet. Nature’s chisel never ceases its work.
A metaphor for the globe.
This article doesn’t scratch the surface of this wonderful place. If you haven’t been, go, go, go. If you have been: Go, go, go. And again, and again.